Charlottesville, Virginia, the first city in the USA to pass an aerial drone ban.

February 9, 2013 |

The use of drones has sped from exclusive military usage to availability by citizens in a matter of a few years.  The cost, size and feasability of technology is now within reach of citizens.  That means they are well within the reach of governments for domestic uses, obviously including as part of a policing approach.  This development has involved precious little policy considerations and little regulation.  In Australia there is no privacy protection relating to the use of drones, notwithstanding the obvious issues.  It is a case of technology fast outpacing the law’s need to regulate in order to protect competing rights and interests.

Charlottesville has reportedly restricted the use of aerial drones (report found here).

It provides:

This week, the city of Charlottesville, Virginia became the first city in the US to limit the use of unmanned aerial drones. Drafted by a local civil liberties organization, the law prevents police agencies from utilizing drones outfitted with anti-personnel devices such as lethal weapons, tasers and tear gas. It also bans all evidence collected with spy drones from being introduced as evidence in any criminal trials.

The Rutherford Institute

The ordinance was written by The Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville civil liberties organization that provides free legal services to people whose constitutional and human rights have been threatened or violated. The group was originally founded in 1982 by attorney and author John W. Whitehead. According to The Rutherford Institute’s website, ‘The Institute’s mission is twofold: to provide legal services in the defense of religious and civil liberties and to educate the public on important issues affecting their constitutional freedoms.’

Some of the legal battles the Institute has fought on behalf of victims include; protecting the rights of parents whose children were strip-searched at school, standing up for a teacher fired for speaking about religion, and defending the rights of individuals against illegal search and seizure. Their latest fight – banning the use of aerial drones – was also successful, just passing the Charlottesville City Council by the narrowest of margins.

The anti-drone resolution

While the local law doesn’t ban the use of drones completely in the skies over Charlottesville, many civil rights advocates see it as an important first step to that end. An earlier ordinance introduced in the city council would have done just that. Called the ‘no drone zone’, the proposal would have also banned all city agencies from ‘buying, leasing, borrowing, or testing any drones’. That proposal was not successful however, leaving the 5-person City Council to pass the less-restrictive version.

The final draft, written by attorneys at The Rutherford Institute, narrowly passed by a 3-2 vote in the Charlottesville City Council. Councilwoman Dede Smith was quoted by US News after casting her vote in favor of the ordinance saying that drones are, “pretty clearly a threat to our Constitutional right to privacy.” Smith went on to explain, “If we don’t get out ahead of it to establish some guidelines for how drones are used, they will be used in a very invasive way and we’ll be left to try and pick up the pieces.”

Taking the opposite position was Charlottesville Vice Mayor Kristin Szakos, who voted against the anti-drone ordinance. “I think drones have been used for bad things, but it’s like banning airplanes because they can drop bombs,” she argues, “At this point, the city isn’t even talking about using drones. It seems premature to me to ban them altogether.”

As previously mentioned, the ordinance that banned drones all together was not passed by the city. The version that passed into law simply bared the use of weapons by drones and prohibits the video/photo evidence gathered by the unmanned aerial vehicles from being introduced in court as evidence. Still, advocates for civil liberties are celebrating the first anti-drone law in the nation. They promise it’s just the beginning.

The Rutherford Institute was the driving force behind the legislation. Its report is here.

The resolution in question  is found here.

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